Texas Hummingbird Roundup: Identification Basics
When identifying an unusual hummingbird, or any other bird, it is always good to develop a consistent pattern of observing the bird so that you gather all the factors that may be important in reaching your final identification. Start with the bill, work across the head to the back and wings, examine the tail, belly and breast and finally take note of the gorget (throat and neck).
The bill of a North American hummingbird is often the most distinctive feature of the bird, it is the factor that makes a hummingbird a hummingbird in our minds. In tropical regions though, there are hummingbirds that have very short bills. What features of a hummingbird bill would I look at? The length – is it relatively short like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird or the Blue-throated Hummingbird, or is it long like the Magnificent Hummingbird. Is it red, black, grey or any combination of these colors? Is it straight or slightly down curved (in the tropics it may be sharply down curved or even up-curved)? Is it noticeably heavy like the Broad-billed Hummingbird, or very light like the Black-chinned Hummingbird?
The markings of the head of a hummingbird are often very distinctive. Watch for eye stripes, cheek patches, crown color, nape color, striping near or at the malar, and other features that may be unique between species. The color on the top and back of the head may be a subtle difference between two very similar species as in the Ruby-throated (yellow-green) and the Black-chinned (gray-green).
Color on the back of the hummingbird is usually a variation of a shade of green – except when it is red. Look for unique markings though – a triangle of rufous tone in the rump of a Blue-throated Hummingbird is typical of these distinctive features.
When examining the tail of a hummingbird, length, shape, the way they carry the tail and even motion of the tail can help in identifying the bird. When examining two large hummingbirds, one of which has a green tail and the other a black tail, you will learn that the green tail is more likely a Magnificent Hummingbird while the Blue-throated Hummingbird is often recognized for a large, black tail. Two large white patches on the tips of that black tail give the bird away. The Lucifer Hummingbird has a habit of folding it’s otherwise forked tail to a narrow point when sitting. The Black-chinned Hummingbird tends to keep it’s tail actively in motion when hovering while the Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s tail is rather still in similar situations. Examine the tail carefully for any hint of red color. Red in the tail points toward certain genera while eliminating others.
The color of the belly can be very diagnostic in some birds. Buff-bellied Hummingbirds obviously have a buff, sandy belly pattern while the very similar Berylline Hummingbird has a gray belly. The Lucifer Hummingbird female is often noted for the buffy ventral area on the bird. Lucifer Hummingbirds are also noted for their buffy breast band, a feature that is always very noticeable below that apparently long neck. The buffy breast band extends along the neck and into the area above the eye.
And what about that all important gorget that field guides point you to immediately? The color in a hummingbird gorget is not a true color, meaning that feathers from each of a “red," “green," “violet," “blue," and “rosy” throats would all appear brown unless the light strikes at just the right angle. The gorget can tell you something without the color though. Is it a widespread, large gorget, or is it limited to a very small area? Are there “wings” to the gorget that extend down into the breast of the bird? Is it uniform or “streaked”? Does any white show above the gorget but below the bill? These features are somewhat unique to each species and can be combined with the other characteristics to tell you what hummingbird you are looking at.